Medieval Scale Armour: An Insight into a Formidable Protection

Medieval Scale Armour: An Insight into a Formidable Protection

Scale armour, a staple of the medieval soldier’s arsenal, offers an intriguing blend of protection, flexibility, and aesthetics. Not as well-known as chainmail or plate armour, scale armour has its storied history and unique advantages. In this article, we dive deep into the world of medieval scale armour, exploring its origins, construction, use, and influence on the battlefields of yesteryears.

Origins of Scale Armour

Scale armour can trace its roots back well before the medieval period. Ancient cultures such as the Assyrians and Persians made use of scale-like protection in their military attire. The design concept is simple yet effective: small, scale-shaped plates (often made of metal) are attached to a fabric or leather backing in an overlapping pattern, much like the scales of a fish.

By the time the medieval period rolled around, various cultures and regions adopted, adapted, and modified scale armor, each bringing its unique touch to the design and application.

Construction and Materials

  1. Scales: The scales, typically made of iron, bronze, or sometimes leather, were the primary protective component. They were commonly shaped like rounded rectangles, although other shapes, such as ovals or diamonds, were not unheard of. The size of these scales could vary, with some being as small as a coin, while others could be as large as the palm of a hand.
  2. Backing: The scales were attached to a backing made of cloth, leather, or a combination of materials. This ensured that the scales remained in place and provided a level of comfort and additional protection for the wearer.
  3. Fastening: Each scale was often pierced at the top (and sometimes on the sides) to allow it to be sewn or riveted onto the backing. The overlapping arrangement ensured that blows from weapons were deflected or absorbed, reducing the risk of injury.

Was Scale Armor Heavy?

Scale armour’s weight is a subject of interest for historians and enthusiasts alike, as it played a critical role in its practicality and use on the battlefield. While it might seem that a full suit of small overlapping metal scales would be exceedingly heavy, the reality is more complex.

The weight of scale armour would vary significantly depending on factors such as the material of the scales, their size, thickness, and the overall design of the armour. Scales made of iron or bronze would be heavier than those made of leather or other lighter materials. The weight distribution and overlapping design also influenced how heavy the armour felt to the wearer.

A full suit of metal scale armour might weigh anywhere from 20 to 30 pounds (9 to 14 kg), depending on these factors. While this is undoubtedly a substantial weight, it is generally less than the weight of full plate armour. Moreover, the flexibility and distribution of weight across the body could make scale armour feel less cumbersome than it actually was.

But it is essential to recognize that the weight could still be a limitation, particularly during prolonged combat or in hot climates where the additional burden could lead to fatigue. The need to balance protection, weight, and mobility was a perpetual challenge in armour design, and scale armour represents one of the many solutions that were explored throughout history.

Did Knights Wear Scale Armor?

The question of whether knights wore scale armour during the medieval period is a nuanced one that requires an understanding of the various forms of protection available at the time and the specific needs and preferences of knights.

Knights, who were often members of the nobility or elite warrior class, typically had access to the best armour available. This could have included scale armor during the early and high medieval periods. Scale armour offered a level of flexibility and mobility that made it attractive for certain types of combat, particularly for cavalry or when fighting in rugged terrain.

Yet, the image of the fully-armoured knight in shining plate armour is not simply a romantic ideal; it reflects the fact that by the late medieval period, plate armour had become the preferred form of protection for many knights. Plate armour provided a more complete and rigid defense against the weapons of the time, such as lances, swords, and, later, firearms.

That said, knights may have used scale armor in specific contexts or regions. It could be worn as part of a layered defense system, underneath chainmail or plate armour, or used to protect areas that required more flexibility. In some regions, particularly in the East or where the influence of Byzantine or Asiatic armour was more pronounced, scale armour might have been more common among knights.

It’s also worth noting that not all knights had access to the latest or most expensive armour. Depending on factors such as wealth, availability, and personal preference, some knights might have chosen or been forced to rely on scale armour, at least for a time.

Therefore, while scale armour may not have been the most iconic or prevalent form of protection for knights, particularly in the later medieval period, it likely played a role in their armament to varying degrees. Its use would have depended on a complex interplay of factors, including the period, geographical location, individual status, and specific warfare demands at the time.

Advantages of Scale Armour

Scale armour provided a number of benefits that made it a popular choice for many warriors:

  1. Flexibility: Unlike rigid plate armour, scale armour allowed for greater mobility. This was especially useful for cavalry or archers who needed to move swiftly.
  2. Versatility: Scales could be made from a variety of materials based on availability, cost, and specific needs. Leather scales, for instance, were lighter and offered silent movement, whereas metal scales provided enhanced protection.
  3. Repairability: Damaged scales could be easily replaced without having to forge a whole new piece of armour. This was a significant advantage during prolonged campaigns or in areas far from a forge.

Variations and Regional Differences

Throughout the medieval period, scale armour saw various adaptations based on regional and cultural differences:

  1. Byzantine Klibanion: The Byzantine Empire used a version of scale armour known as the klibanion. It was a lamellar cuirass, often combined with chainmail, to provide comprehensive protection.
  2. Asian Variations: In East Asia, especially in ancient China, scale armour was employed by various dynasties. Their scales were sometimes made of jade, bone, or horn, stitched onto a fabric backing.
  3. Rus and Viking Adaptations: Both Rus warriors and Vikings are believed to have used scale armour, particularly during their earlier periods. Their scales were typically made of iron and were more robust and larger than some of their counterparts in warmer climates.

Challenges and Limitations

Like all forms of protection, scale armour had its drawbacks:

  1. Weight: While individual scales were light, a full suit made of metal scales could be quite hefty, especially when combined with other armour components.
  2. Gaps in Protection: If not overlapped correctly or if scales were missing, determined opponents could exploit vulnerabilities.
  3. Maintenance: Metal scales, especially iron, were prone to rust. Regular maintenance was needed to ensure the armour’s longevity.

Scale Armour Use on Horses

Scale armour was not only used to protect warriors but also their valued steeds, most notably horses. The use of scale armour on horses has a unique place in the history of military equipment and warfare.

In the medieval period, a knight’s horse was not just a means of transportation but an extension of the warrior, a vital component in battle. The protection of these animals was paramount, as losing a horse in battle could be a significant disadvantage. Scale armour offered an effective solution.

The construction of horse scale armour followed similar principles to human scale armour, with scales made from iron, bronze, or even leather, attached to a fabric or leather backing. This design allowed for greater flexibility, meaning that the horse could move more freely and comfortably, a vital factor in the heat of battle.

Horse scale armour, known as barding, would cover vital areas such as the chest, flanks, and sometimes even the head. The overlapping scales would provide protection from arrows, swords, and other weaponry, without significantly hindering the horse’s mobility. This was especially important for cavalry charges, where speed and protection were crucial.

Moreover, the use of scale armour on horses was not limited to the Western world. Eastern cultures, particularly in Persia and China, also adopted scale barding, tailoring it to their specific needs, climate, and warfare strategies.

Despite the obvious advantages, scale armour for horses had its challenges. It could be heavy, especially if made from metal, and required careful fitting to ensure it didn’t chafe or restrict the animal. The cost of constructing and maintaining such armour was also considerable, often limiting its use to the elite warrior class.

The integration of scale armour into horse barding demonstrates the adaptability of this protection method. It offers insights into the intricate relationship between medieval warriors and their horses and the lengths they would go to ensure both were adequately shielded in the often brutal and unforgiving battlefield. Whether serving as a knight in Europe or a mounted archer in Asia, scale armour was pivotal in horse warfare throughout the medieval era.

Comparison with Other Armour Types

Scale armour, a notable protective measure during various historical periods, shares similarities and differences with other armour types. Here’s a comparison with some common armour types, such as chainmail, plate armour, and lamellar armour, focusing on different aspects, including construction, protection, flexibility, and other factors:

Scale Armour vs. Chainmail:

  • Construction: Scale armour consists of overlapping scales attached to a backing, while chainmail is made of interlinked metal rings.
  • Protection: Both provide good protection against slashing attacks, but chainmail typically offers better resistance to thrusting weapons.
  • Flexibility: Scale armour can be somewhat more rigid compared to the high flexibility of chainmail.
  • Weight: Scale armour might be heavier or lighter than chainmail, depending on the materials and construction.

Scale Armour vs. Plate Armour:

  • Construction: Plate armour is made from large, shaped pieces of metal, providing full coverage, while scale armour uses many small scales.
  • Protection: Plate armour offers superior protection against most weapons but can be more cumbersome.
  • Flexibility: Scale armour is generally more flexible, allowing for easier movement.
  • Weight: Plate armour is typically much heavier and can be more fatiguing to wear.

Scale Armour vs. Lamellar Armour:

  • Construction: Both scale and lamellar armour use small plates, but in scale armour, they’re attached to a backing, while in lamellar armour, they’re laced or tied to each other.
  • Protection: Lamellar tends to offer more consistent protection, with fewer gaps, but the differences can be minimal.
  • Flexibility: Both types provide good flexibility, but this can vary based on construction and materials.
  • Weight: The weight is often comparable, depending on the size and materials of the plates.

Scale Armour vs. Leather Armour:

  • Construction: Leather armour is made from layers of treated leather, while scale armour can incorporate leather but usually includes metal scales.
  • Protection: Scale armour generally offers better protection, especially against slashing or piercing attacks.
  • Flexibility: Leather armour may provide more comfort and flexibility.
  • Weight: Scale armour is usually heavier if made with metal scales.

In conclusion, scale armour occupies a unique niche in the spectrum of historical protective gear. Its protection, flexibility, and weight balance made it suitable for various roles and environments. While it may have been superseded by other forms in certain contexts, its distinctive construction and adaptability underscore its significant role in the armoury of the past. Like all armour types, its efficacy depended greatly on the specific demands of combat and the available materials and construction techniques. Its continued fascination among historians and enthusiasts testifies to its enduring appeal and the complex interplay of form and function that it represents.

Decline and Legacy

By the late medieval period, weaponry advancements and plate armor’s rise led to the gradual decline of scale armour’s prominence. Plate armour offered more comprehensive protection against the increasingly powerful projectiles and blows of the time.

Still, scale armour’s legacy lives on. Its design concept influenced the lamellar armour, made of larger, interlocking plates and popular in various regions, including Asia and Eastern Europe. Moreover, in the world of fashion and pop culture, scale-like designs continue to captivate, bringing a touch of historical grandeur to modern aesthetics.


Scale armour, often overshadowed by its more renowned counterparts, has a distinct place in the annals of medieval military history. Its clever design, mirroring nature’s protective systems as seen in fish and reptiles, allowed for a combination of adaptability and defense that was vital to warriors across different cultures and eras. Though it may have waned in importance with the rise of more sophisticated armour, the artistry and ingenuity behind scale armour have left an indelible mark. 

Today, historians, re-enactors, and designers continue to explore and appreciate this unique form of protection. Its legacy stands as a testament to human innovation and the timeless pursuit of balancing form with function, aesthetics with practicality. Whether in the annals of history or the realms of fantasy, scale armour continues to inspire and intrigue, serving as a poignant reminder of our enduring connection with the past.